Gina Montalto’s parents simply clutched hands and cried as it was announced Thursday that a Florida jury recommended the Parkland school shooter should not be condemned to death.
Tony Montalto, Gina’s father and president of the advocacy group Stand with Parkland, called it “yet another gut punch for so many of us who devastatingly lost our loved ones on that tragic Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.”
“Seventeen beautiful lives were cut short, by murder, and the monster that killed them gets to live to see another day,” Montalto said in a statement, echoing the sentiments of other stunned family members who bowed or shook their heads in disbelief at the decision.
“While this sentence fails to punish the perpetrator to the fullest extent of the law – it will not stop our mission to effect positive change at a federal, state and local level to prevent school shooting tragedies from shattering other American families.”
Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer is expected to issue the gunman’s formal sentence on November 1; she cannot depart from the jury’s recommendation of life in prison without parole.
The monthslong trial on the fate of the gunman culminated with the jury finding the aggravating factors presented by state prosecutors did not outweigh the mitigating circumstances, or aspects of the shooter’s life and upbringing defense attorneys argued warranted only a life sentence.
In the end, three jurors voted against the death penalty, jury foreman Benjamin Thomas told CNN affiliate WFOR.
“There was one with a hard ‘No.’ She couldn’t do it, and there was another two that ended up voting the same way,” Thomas said, adding that the first juror “didn’t believe because he was mentally ill he should get the death penalty.”
Thomas said the jury system worked though he didn’t like the decision.
“It’s pretty unreal that nobody paid attention to the facts of this case, that nobody can remember who the victim is and what they look like,” Montalto told reporters Thursday. “I see my beautiful daughter’s face around our home, in my dreams. And I miss her very much.”
Montalto was not alone.
Debra Hixon, widow of 49-year-old Chris Hixon, said the decision signals that the shooter’s life “meant more than the 17 that were murdered … and the thousands of people in that school and that community that are terrorized and traumatized every single day.”
“How do you say, ‘Yes it’s cruel, that it was heinous, that it was planned and we all agree on that, but oh, he might have had a mental illness or he had trouble growing up,’” she said.
The parents of 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, who was among the 17 people killed in the February 2018 Parkland massacre, said they were “disgusted.”
Ilan Alhadeff said his family was “beyond disappointed with the outcome.”
Alhadeff and his wife, Lori, questioned the purpose of the death penalty in Florida’s legal system if not for the case of a mass school shooter.
“I’m disgusted with our legal system,” Alhadeff, visibly angry, said outside court. “I’m disgusted with those jurors.”
Fred Guttenberg, the father of 14-year-old victim Jaime Guttenberg, lamented that the jury decision “only makes it more likely that the next mass shooting will be attempted.”
“This jury failed our families today,” he said.
Vickie Cartwright, Broward County Public Schools Superintendent, said via Twitter mental health professionals will be available at schools to help students and staff impacted by the decision.
Broward County State Attorney Harold Pryor said he hoped the sentencing recommendation brings “some measure of finality and justice to this terrible chapter.”
“To my knowledge this is the first time the full story of the community’s loss and all the relevant facts have been told about a mass shooting of this magnitude,” he said. “We have not shied away from telling all the horror, all of the loss, all of the devastation, all of the pain about this case.”
Public defender Gordon Weekes urged the community to respect the jury’s final verdict.
“This day is not a day of celebration, but a day of solemn (acknowledgment), and a solemn opportunity to reflect on the healing that is necessary for this community,” he told reporters.
Weekes declined comment when asked about Cruz’s reaction.
Still, the parents of geography teacher Scott Beigel, who was killed ushering students to safety, could not contain their anger.
“It’s anger at the sentencing,” Linda Beigel Schulman said.
Scott’s father, Michael, interjected: “It’s anger at the system.”
“If this was not the most perfect death penalty case, then why do we have the death penalty at all?” Linda Beigel Schulman said. “There’s no doubt about the fact that the verdict should have been the death penalty.”
The mother of Helena Ramsay, a 17-year-old Marjory Stoneman senior who was killed, said the jury got the verdict “wrong” and asked what kind of country allows “weapons of war on the streets.”
“What kind of people are we?”
CNN’s Kevin Conlon, Devon M Sayers and Alta Spells contributed to this report.